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After getting to top, Georgia's new challenge: staying there

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ATLANTA – After 41 years, the Dawgs finally caught the car. Georgia is the defending national champion, and got there by carving through mighty Alabama. The Dawgs are on a run of five straight top-10 AP poll finishes, and are returning the quarterback who led them to the title.

On the other hand, they’re not returning the 15 players selected in the NFL draft, including five defensive players picked in the first round. They’re facing the challenges that await every champion — the hangover, the lull, the complacency that comes with achieving every goal, as well as the fact that Georgia swims in the shark-infested waters of the SEC. What now?

“We didn't build this program on hoping for one-year wonders or hoping for one opportunity,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said in his opening remarks Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “We built the program to be sustained. You sustain it by what you do every single day. This program was built to be here for a long time.”

The numbers bear him out. Under Smart, Georgia has spent $175 million on football facilities, including a still-new $80 million facility that features a 24,000-square-foot weight room, the largest in the country. He already enjoyed buy-in from the university's administration and athletic department, and the first national championship has bought him years of goodwill.

Looking forward into those years, Smart has built such a comprehensive recruiting operation that Georgia hasn't taken in one new player through the transfer portal. Not one. He believes he has stacked enough at every position that there's no need to seek outside help. It's a bold strategy in an era when players would clamor to play for a reigning champion, but Smart believes the crew he has been nurturing in-house is ready for the spotlight.

"There's a hunger among this group," Smart said. "A lot of guys want to prove that they can replace the other guy. They don't want to be the other guy, they want to be the next guy ... The hunger comes from the opportunity the talented players behind them have."

Georgia shrugged off an entire hell's worth of demons in 2021. The Bulldogs, as a team, won their first championship since the Vince Dooley/Herschel Walker days. Smart finally got over on his mentor, Nick Saban. Georgia redeemed a humiliating loss to Alabama in the SEC championship. Stetson Bennett IV quieted every one of the doubters by leading Georgia to a late comeback in the title game. And on and on.

With all that achieved, it's fair to wonder how the Dawgs will gear up for a reprise. Staying on the mountaintop requires a whole different set of skills than getting there. Problem No. 1: complacency.

"That does not concern me in the least," Smart said. "To be complacent, you have to have done something and achieved something. The men on this team for this season have not done that."

"Our leaders have done a good job of transitioning from [the national championship]," Bennett said. "It was really cool, super cool, but it has nothing to do with this year, because these guys are good in this league, good in the country. We know what it took last year, we remember going through those summer weekends, how we attacked each week. That got us there last year. Not doing that probably won't be a good idea."

True to form, Smart has prepared an entire framework of lessons, guidance, motivation and historical perspective on how champions fall apart. His goal: learn what brought down the greats before him, and take steps to ensure that doesn't happen in Athens.

"We've done a lot of studies on how the mighty have fallen," he said. "We have skull sessions, 15-minute meetings, 20-minute meetings and breakout groups. We talk about how the mighty have fallen. I'm talking about in business, sports, history. You learn from the mistakes of others."

"We expect to win every game that we go play, just because of the work that we've done," Bennett said. "We try to look at each opponent each week as nameless and faceless."

Georgia begins the season against Oregon, and its only other prominent out-of-division game will come on Oct. 8 against Auburn. Saying it's an easy schedule belies the treacherous nature of the SEC week to week, but Georgia could well be looking at a season where its toughest competition lurks in December and January.

"People ask the question, 'How does it feel to be hunted?'" Smart said. "We will not be hunted at the University of Georgia. I can promise you that. The hunting we do will be from us going the other direction. We're not going to sit back and be passive."

Jul 20, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to the media during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 20, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart talks to the media during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.

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